Two of Malta’s largest NGOs combating drug abuse have seen fewer people seek their help over cannabis use last year.

OASI Foundation and Caritas Malta each registered a significant decline in the number of calls for help from cannabis users in 2022.

They believe the figures spell bad news as they might be a symptom of the drug becoming normalised.

But cannabis advocacy group Releaf believes this may rather be a sign of de-stigmatisation, leading to fewer parents reporting their children, drug courts sending fewer people to rehab and users smoking cleaner weed instead of the more dangerous synthetic kind.

In December 2021, Malta became the first country in Europe to permit restricted use of cannabis for recreational use. Cannabis users can carry up to 7g of the substance without fear of prosecution and they may grow four plants at home.

OASI said that in 2020, 12 per cent of the calls it received were from people seeking help over cannabis use. That figure fell to 10 per cent in 2021 and last year it fell again by almost half – to six per cent.

Caritas said that last year it registered an overall increase in calls for help over drug use but a four per cent decrease over cannabis use. In 2021, 21 per cent of calls for help came after people experienced problems with cannabis but last year that figure was 17 per cent.

Both organisations had opposed the new cannabis law in 2021. They are now worried the drug has become normalised and are calling for more research into its effects on society.

They fear people who need help over cannabis use are more reluctant to seek it, thinking they don’t need it now that smoking weed has become somewhat legal.

But the drug has remained just as dangerous, they say, and people are likely using it even more than before.

OASI Foundation CEO Noel Xerri. Photo: OASI FoundationOASI Foundation CEO Noel Xerri. Photo: OASI Foundation

How addiction at home impacts children

In a conference about children and addiction on Friday, OASI CEO Noel Xerri said the foundation had opposed the new law primarily to protect children.

He called for more research into how substance use is affecting children at home.

“We need a lot more research that sheds light on what’s happening in our society, especially with respect to children,” Xerri said.

“What role did substance abuse play in the femicides and homicides of the last 15 years, at a time when drugs, especially cannabis and cocaine, became more normalised? And if society is directly or indirectly promoting substance use, is it shouldering responsibility? Or is it shoving all the blame onto the person who commits the crime?”

Friday’s conference highlighted how addiction in the family impacts children and how likely they are to become addicted themselves when they grow up.

Nearly two-thirds (64%) of those who underwent therapy at OASI last year said they were raised in a family where addiction and substance abuse were prevalent. More than half of them have now become parents themselves.

Last year, OASI registered more than 300 calls for help from people who felt they had a problem with addiction. Forty-four per cent of them sought help over cocaine use and 41 per cent over alcohol use.

Caritas Malta director Anthony Gatt. Photo: Archdiocese of MaltaCaritas Malta director Anthony Gatt. Photo: Archdiocese of Malta

‘People can smell it in the street’

Last month, during a ceremony in which 14 former addicts graduated after completing a drug rehabilitation programme, Caritas director Anthony Gatt also warned that cannabis is being smoked in public and people can smell it on the street and in recreational places.

And even though the law prohibits advertisements for cannabis, it is being promoted nonetheless through the grow shops that have mushroomed around the islands, selling cannabis-related products, he said.

“I will never forget what one former user had told me seven years ago – that if cannabis had been legal then, he would never have sought help and would have spent his life living in a haze,” Gatt said during the ceremony.

“We acknowledge that a large percentage of those who use cannabis do not become dependent on it, but in paving the way for those who want to smoke recreationally, we will also have to deal with a higher percentage of people who will have to pay the price of dependency.”

Last year, Caritas registered a three per cent drop in the number of calls from people who needed help because of heroin use but saw a six per cent increase in the number seeking help over cocaine use. Half of all those who called Caritas last year were experiencing problems with cocaine.

Releaf president Andrew Bonello. Photo: LinkedIn/Andrew BonelloReleaf president Andrew Bonello. Photo: LinkedIn/Andrew Bonello

‘De-stigmatised’

But Releaf president Andrew Bonello said the decline follows what happened in most other countries that have legalised or decriminalised cannabis in some way.

The pro-cannabis group leader said it was speculative to say that cannabis had become normalised. Rather, cannabis had been de-stigmatised, he said, leading fewer parents to report their children when they learn they have been smoking weed and fewer users being sent to rehabilitation programmes by drug court.

“Another reason could be fewer people are smoking synthetic cannabis, which is far more dangerous and could send you to rehab far more quickly, and unlike real cannabis, you could overdose on it,” Bonello told Times of Malta.

“So, a decline in people seeking help could, in fact, be a positive sign.”

This did not mean nobody would need help.

“To make it clear, there is cannabis use disorder. It is a thing. And if people feel they have a problem they should seek help, yes,” he said.

“We’re not saying that nobody will have problems.”

The government has pledged to introduce cannabis testing for drivers but Bonello warned that a zero-tolerance approach in this regard could backfire.

Drug tests generally do not detect synthetic cannabis, he said, and that could lead some users to opt for the synthetic kind if they are out and suspect they might be stopped at a road block.

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